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by Brian Noble

August 27, 2019

Noble has completed the open water swim for several years

Blame the Moose.

This needs explaining. Moose was my dog. He was more than just a dog, though. He was Moose. 200 pounds. Jet black with a white necktie. Svelte. Intact. Sweet to me but aloof to others. For almost 10 years my daily routine was: Get up at the crack of doom, go to the pool, swim for an hour and change, and hustle home to take him out on his daily migration around Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. After that I’d jump on my bicycle to get to work downtown around 9ish.

Many days I felt really good in the pool and wanted to keep going, but the Moose beckoned. I held some quiet grievance against the need to leave the pool for the Moose meander, but it was something only I could do in our family given his size, our postage stamp of a backyard, and the park across the street. So off we went. He was a fixture in the park; all the homeless and all the other dog walkers knew him in our corner of GGP. He was a star and I was his ditzy boy-toy.

Years passed, and so did the Moose. I put him down in our flat, drove him up the coast, dug a hole, and interred him myself. I owed him that and more. Those quiet grievances required loud addressing.

The next morning in the pool I began doing doubles—7,000 or 8,000 each morning, every morning. Paying homage to my dear, large beastie. A swimmer friend who I worked with advised I should dial down the efforts or I’d blow my shoulder out. So be it, I thought. Let's see what it takes to blow a shoulder. Didn’t happen.

Swimmers at my pool asked what event I was training for. I’d say, “Event? I’m just swimming.” They were nonplussed. You see, I don’t have any speed in the pool. Twenty years of swimming for Coach Val of University of San Francisco Masters, and I’ve never scored a single point in all those pool meets. Not a one.

Open water seemed the next logical depart. Tried a few open water swims in the Bay, crossed Tahoe a couple times, and joined the South End Rowing club. Turns out I like open water.  A good friend I swim a bunch with, Dean Atchison (who can’t seem to find enough athletic competitions to win), suggested we go up to Portland to do the Bridges Swim. Dean was obviously strategizing on his open water points agglomeration. 12 bridges and 11 miles? 12 miles and 11 bridges? 13 donuts and a bottle of port wine?

Whatever. Let’s do this.

The first year I knew I had trained for the distance, but the weather was cloudy and damp, like a wet cloth that has just been pulled out of the cooler and wrapped around you. I was swaddled in hypothermia pretty much the whole swim—until the last 30 minutes when the sun came out and tried to make amends for the earlier popsicle treatment. More grievances, but I was thrilled to finish. It’s a great feeling to push through that kind of challenge.

Portland is weird. And fun. And compelling. I’d been to Portland at least once before the swims, but this time, with the family along, it became more than a casual destination. It became a pilgrimage. (The Bridges swim is the gravitational center of the trip for me, but the crown jewel of Portland for my wife and girls is Powell's City of Books. I don’t want to think about how many extra pieces of luggage we’ve had to purchase in Portland to bring the books home. Apparently, my girls are wildly unaware Powell’s ships for free, when at scale). The city has so much to offer: myriad food trucks and amazing restaurants, the Saturday market, Courier coffee, more breweries than you can shake a stick at (and I carry a big stick), the rose gardens, the OMSI, Hotel Lucia (our fave), Sassy’s, the Whiskey Library, to name just a few. Shameless name dropping there I know, but no paid endorsements. Alas.

I’ve done the swim with broken ribs—I wore a wetsuit that year to protect my chest and “won” my division. I use quotes on "won" because there were only two men in my wetsuit division. So, technically, while I won, I also came in second to last. Think about it. Kinda steals the thunder.

They awarded me a trophy made of junk pulled out of the river—creative Riverkeepers. I seem to have some kind of cosmic connection to the swim, because since I started doing it, I’ve only missed it once (to do a 10K in Lake Mead). That year, the Bridges swim was canceled midway due to lightning.

Another year, a swimmer friend, Pat Grady, had the only distinction, I believe, of making the Portland Bridges swim a modified duathlon. His shoulder was uncertain at the beginning, but he started the swim anyway. He abandoned at about 2 miles, and his wife, who was kayaking for him, kept on paddling with another swimmer friend. Grady decided to run the rest of the course to meet us at the finish, but didn’t bank on a 9-mile run (he trained for swimming, not running). Nor did he bank on getting shuffled over to the west side of the river before the St Johns bridge. So, he had to wade back into the Willamette and hold his clothes over his head while one-armed dog paddling to the finish. Where, in a moment of rare circumstance, he met his wife in her kayak as she was finishing with the other swimmer and crew. Puzzled stares were in abundance. I was quite unhappy when I arrived to find Grady dressed and giggling since I thought we’d finish around the same time, but explications provided make it another great Bridges swim story. In a swim like this uncertainty is to be expected and, ideally, enjoyed.

The kayakers who donate their time and efforts have been spectacular. Dragon boats on the water while you go, swimming past a submarine every year, seeing many bridges (I always lose count) from the underside, all of the cityside as you churn away, that really long dock near the end and the magnificent St. John’s bridge at the finish—what a sight. This is a swim that’s hard to compete with.

The topper is I’ve made a number of friends doing this swim year after year, not the least of whom is Marisa Frieder, the Keeper and Empress of the Bridges swim who probably swims it weekly to ensure the river doesn’t run away. She does such a great job in organizing the race and executing it. Keep rocking this swim, Marisa. And I’ll keep coming. You want to know why?

Blame the Moose.


  • Open Water


  • National Championships
  • USMS Nationals